Classroom Teaching Guide
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood
Nathan Hale has created an engaging and exciting series of historical graphic novels perfect for the social studies classroom, either as a class set or single copy or two to be shared amongst other resources. I have used Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood as part of a collection of WWI resources in my 9th and 10th grade World History courses, but it can also easily be used in a classroom of younger students. The title alone is enough to grab the attention of any student and the stunning illustrations will keep that attention throughout the book. Historically WWI is arguably the most important aspect of modern history and often the most overlooked. There are so many variables as to the causes of the war, who was involved, and what happened that students can often become overwhelmed in a traditional textbook, this text helps sort through the complexities.
One of the biggest obstacles to understanding WWI is the very beginning – understanding why it began and who was involved. Hale, in the style of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, depicts the warring European nations as their symbolic animal depictions (Russia as a bear, Germany as an eagle). This method helps the students retain the information in a way that I was never able to do through any other resource. This gets to the magic of graphic novels – my students often remark that they, as visual 21st century learners, can make so many more memorable connections through graphic novels. These images force students to pay attention to the details and textual evidence as they make meaning of the illustrations. These are skills that are important when analyzing political cartoons, historical posters, and even prose such as diaries and textbooks. The inherent symbolism in Hale’s graphic novels are a fun and academic way to have students internalize these important skills.
Hale begins this book, as in all his titles, with a monologue from the narrator, the historical spy, and the author’s namesake, Nathan Hale. If you are looking for a series through which to teach history, this is a brilliant way to have students feel comfortable and engaged. I also love that these historical events become a story – as the best history teachers are those who are great story tellers. History needs to be personalized and told on an individual, as well as big picture scale. This takes the fear of the textbook away and allows students to fully immerse themselves in the historical events. Hale uses two-page panoramas to get across the vast scale of the conflict, while also using small boxes in the borders to force the reader to see the personal impact of the war. The book continually shifts focus from broad to specific, from trench to sea, from artillery to tank, and this forced shift of perspective helps the reader understand the fog of war. However, this is not done with an intensity that can result in the reader becoming detached. The story telling through the illustrations of animals and lack of gore makes this book accessible to many grade levels.’
Make no mistake, the history in Hale’s book is well researched and students will finish the book with a depth of understanding that they will remember. Hale includes maps, a bibliography, and accurate depictions of weapons, uniforms, battles, and much more. Students can glean an awesome breadth and depth of information in a shorter amount of time than they can with any other medium. This relatively short book takes the reader from the assassination of Ferdinand through many battles (such as Gallipoli, Verdun, Somme, and the armistice at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11th). Most importantly, Hale has his narrators take us out of the action and forces us to think about what these events mean, not only about history, but also about us as a species. He also does not shy away from what was not included – Hale tells us that the narrators skipped the Middle East, the Influenza Epidemic, the Armenian Genocide, and other topics. The way he sneaks this in has my students asking me questions and wanting to know more – they don’t want the book to end. They want to do more research, they want to create their own comics, and I know that this graphic novel allowed this to happen.
As I said, I use this title as part of many other resources when teaching about WWI. Graphic novels are never a replacement for other more traditional resources, but they are a powerful tool in the teaching handbag. I have my students read and annotate WWI poems by Wilfred Owens and others (such as Dulce et Decorum Est), analyze historical photos and maps, videos, and even analyze artifacts, such as a WWI helmet and trench whistle. I allow students to make their own meanings from these items and to ask questions about them. We then read Hale’s book and analyze his choice of symbols and illustrations as we discuss what works, what we would do differently, and why he chose to draw what he did. This is no different than an art student looking critically at a painting, or a literature student analyzing a poem or story. As educators, we need to reach our students in as many ways as possible and graphic novels allow us to do just that.
Towards the end of the unit, I have my students write their own poems based on what they have learned. I encourage them to think in radical ways and to think of what they want the viewpoint of their poem to be. Students have told their poem from the viewpoint of a bullet, a bird, a rock in No Man’s Land, a worried loved one at home, a soldier in the field, etc. The graphic novel really allows students this freedom of thought as they see the creative approach Hale took when telling the history of WWI. I found it much more challenging to have my students think this freely before I began using Hale’s book in my class. The students are then given the final part of the assignment – they draw a visual of their poem. I do not give them a rubric and I give them full freedom to create what they want. I hang these poems and drawings up in the halls outside of our classroom and so many stop to view and remark on them. I have been personally moved by the creations of my students and the mature way they are able to view the events of WWI, and human conflict in general. This is simply not possible without using graphic novels as part of the unit and Hale’s title.
I’d be happy to share more about my experiences with this, and other graphic novels in the classroom. Using this medium in your classroom will ignite your students in fun and meaningful ways that they will remember forever. I have had the privilege of meeting Nathan and presenting with him on a panel at San Diego Comic Con. He is witty, funny, and very much approachable. Send him a tweet @MrNathanHale and let your students interact with him as well.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, @historycomics, and on www.historycomics.net. Happy reading and I can’t wait to hear about all of your success.
Suggested Grade Level – 5th and up
Concerns – some images of battle